Jodi Hills

So this is who I am – a writer that paints, a painter that writes…


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Thumbs up.

There is a certain group of people that will forever remain in the Mr. or Mrs. categories for me — my teachers.

As an adult, even becoming friends with some of them, it still seems almost impossible not to refer to them in a proper way. And how lucky, I suppose, that this remains. This simple sign of respect. 

My first gym teacher at Washington Elementary was Mr. Christopherson. His job, I see now, was almost impossible. Rounding up these groups of children, on the brink of Lord of the Flies…so filled with the agony and frustration of grammar and times tables…bursting at the seams of our gym uniforms to release the energy of learning. But somehow he did. Separating us into teams. Arming us with red balls. Allowing us to throw and run and scream and laugh, and sometimes cry. But then, and here comes the amazing part, he had the strength, the respect, to wind us down. Make us pick up the balls. Place them neatly in the ball rack. Stand in line. March to the lavatory. Shower. Change back into our “civilian” clothes. And walk quietly, calmly, (a little lighter of educational worry) single file, back to our classroom . This is something. This is why he will, and should, forever remain “Mr. Christopherson.”

When I became an adult, and would visit my mother for the weekend, I would go out running in the morningtime. And I would see him out there. Even on the coldest of winter days. Well into his later years. Still running. Still fit. Still in charge. Still inspiring. I would see him from a distance. I knew how he ran. I could feel myself pick up my pace a little. Puff up my chest. Run a little taller, straighter, stronger. When we crossed paths, he would smile and give me the thumbs up. Approval. It mattered. It still does. 

Today we say goodbye to this forever Mister. I sit up in my chair. A little straighter. A little stronger. And type the words of thanks.


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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.


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I’ve been there.

We all wore them at Washington Elementary – the great equalizer. For one hour we not only exercised our bodies, but our humility, by donning the Phy Ed onesie – blue and white stripes on the top, elastic waist, blue shorts. Flattering no one. Winning and losing became irrelevant. You couldn’t get too arrogant if your side of the gym won the day’s event, because, I mean, look at you, you still look as ridiculous as the rest of us. So we just played. And we laughed. We had to. 

The classes after gym always seemed a little easier. Bonding for that hour, made math a little more bearable. It was the same after swimming class at Central Junior high, as they forced us to wear the dreaded green swimsuit. We didn’t make fun of the girls who arrived to class with wet hair and clothes disheveled after the allotted five minutes to change — we all knew we would have to go through it on our next cycle day.  

As we aged into high school, then adult life, we dropped all of the symbols of our survival. It gets harder and harder to tell what others have been through. And it’s not like I want to wear the uniforms anymore, no thanks, so we have to talk to each other. Share our stories. So we know we’re not alone. So we can be empathetic. Encouraging. So we can help, and be helped. Because we’re all going through something. Every day. Every minute. And wouldn’t it be comforting, as you arrived now to this day, maybe your heart bruised, or broken, your soul weary (straggly wet and disheveled from life’s lesson), wouldn’t it be nice to see the half smiling nod of the girl in the seat next to you saying, “I know… I’ve been there. I know…”


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Sometimes she would whisper to her heart. It was usually just this, “yes.”

He began the song in a whisper, Nat King Cole. From the radio he graced our breakfast table. His opening of “Perfidia” was as gentle as the steam that rose from our coffee. “Mujer…” he sang, so softly, but never more clear to our hearts. We left our croissants on the table, and just listened.

In third grade, Mrs. Erickson carried a long stick. She didn’t slam it. She didn’t swing it. She held it. Third graders are not known for sitting still. There is so much to make the eye wander. The birds outside the window. The fidgeting boy in the desk next to you. The note being passed around. The answers on the smart girl’s paper. Mrs. Erickson told us once at the beginning of the school year, “Keep your eyes on your own paper.” She never said the words aloud again. But we knew. If the end of the stick tapped lightly on the front of your desk, or simply pointed in your direction…you looked at your own work.

I can see it now so clearly. She was brilliant. She didn’t need to wave her stick around, because it wasn’t about punishing, it was about teaching. I think she knew that “cheaters” weren’t bad, but simply not confident, not confident in their own work. And her tap, was a reminder, “Look, look right here, you can do this.”

I don’t know if everyone got that. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. Every day. It’s not that I have the want or the opportunity to “steal the answers” from someone else. But I do need a gentle tap, a whisper, to tell me that I can do this. I can do this in my way. In my time. The answers are right in front of me.

This morning Nat King Cole gave us a gentle tap.

I summon the daily courage needed, and I begin. “Yes,” I whisper. “Yes.”


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May Day.

May Day in France is all about two things: muguet, pronounced “moo-gay” (lily of the valley in English) and Labor Day. On the 1st of May friends and family offer each other little sprigs, bouquets or whole plants of lily of the valley for good luck. The more little bell-like flowers the plant has, the better the luck.

We used to make May Day baskets in school. Gifts for our mothers. Construction paper. Scissors. Glue. Making them was not that hard. We had cut and pasted so many times before, and in the security of our desks and under the watchful eye of our teacher, we easily constructed baskets of pink and blue and green. The most difficult part came after the bell rang. Releasing us into the wild. It was a small miracle if your fragile basket of May could survive the bus ride home. 

I would cup the basket like a baby bird in one hand, and straight- arm my other to protect it.  Bus fumes. The wind through the windows. Wild boys. Sick girls. Anything could destroy my tiny little basket. With my sweaty, nervous legs stuck to the fake green leather bus seat, I guarded my mother’s gift with my whole heart. I suppose I’m still doing that. I always will.

Today we will bring flowers to Dominique’s mother. Tiny little bells of luck. Fragile symbols of hope and care. Giving this to each other, probably our most important work of all. Happy Labor day!


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Full bloom.

I know we could have purchased tulips, but they brought these to us, from Amsterdam. Native tulip bulbs. Spectacular. We dug little rows in the ground with the tiny rake and shovel from our greenhouse. Of course I was smiling, not just because of the gifted tulips, but because I had been here before, in the spring of kindness.

I was five when I saw it wrapped in the garage. Easter morning. Not chocolate, or a bunny of any kind, but a tiny set of garden tools, just my size. In the brightest of colors. A green shovel. A red hoe and a yellow rake. Colors so shiny, they were spring itself. They were bright and simple. 

Not all the days to follow would be like this. Something in my heart told me to hang on. Something in my heart told me that this is what would carry me — moments of kindness. The shiny moments of people who care, and dare to show it.

We placed the bulbs in the ground. Four to five weeks it said on the box from Holland – that’s how long it would take. I laughed to myself, knowing, in my heart, they were already in full bloom — the spring of kindness.


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Something to give.

It’s no accident, I suppose, that in the morning I wrote about what a gift it was to be introduced to the world of art at Washington Elementary — and then spent the afternoon passing it on to Margaux. 

She absorbs the information as quickly as the tile she is painting on. Eager to learn of texture and mixing and brushes. Knowledge that I’m so eager to share. Because this I understand. This becomes our language. Our connection. And when she completes the painting she is proud of herself. As she should be. And this is the gift that she can continue to give to herself, and some day to others.

They say it’s not enough to just survive something. Once you do, make it out of the depths of hell, you have to go back and help the others. Or if you reach the glorious summit, you have to go back down and help the others climb. Our best days and our worst days, all gifts to pass on. And that’s something! To be given! To have something to give.


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Never finish.

There was a certain percentage of students at Washington Elementary that ate the Elmer’s glue. I must admit I liked the smell, but I never did eat it. I, along with the remainder of the class did however, put it on our fingertips, let it dry, and then peeled it off. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how satisfying that was.  This, along with a box of colored construction paper and Crayola crayons, could keep us busy during any rain altered recess. 

I was watching it rain yesterday afternoon through my office window, busy working on my new website. I have a small selection of paints at my desk, and a couple of brushes. 

I needed a recess — a rain altered recess. It’s amazing how it still can thrill me. The colors. The possibility. I knew at 5 years old, how magic this world was. Not only could it take you anywhere, but it would stay with you, inside of you, so permanent, so sure. I suppose it’s possible that I could have learned this on my own, I don’t know, but I give thanks every day for Washington Elementary. I give thanks for the teachers that introduced this world. What a gift they offered — this ability to go anywhere, even when the world was closed down…this ability to save yourself from the storm.  

I’m still learning. Still loving. I pray I never finish.


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Porches.

I suppose I’ve always been a romantic. I have never experienced a poverty of imagination.

I was often alone as a child. That’s not meant to be sad, and it wasn’t. It gave me time to create. We had a large green lawn on Van Dyke Road. On summer days, I took all of my dolls, stuffed animals, anything that could possibly have a personality, and placed them on the grass. They went to the circus. I tossed them in the air. They hung off branches, and bounced on basketballs. They visited other states and countries, as I walked them all through Hugo’s wheat field behind our house, dragging them in a rusted red wagon. They were rust stained, grass stained, and exhausted. And they were so happy. I suppose by “they” I mean me.

As I read more, learned more, I became more curious. What would it be like there? It must be exciting, I thought. I could hear horns honking in New York. Porches creaking in New England. Beaches in California. Cowboys in the south. And I imagined it all. How the sun felt as it beat against the writer’s shoulders. How the fire crackled with love and gathering. Paint splattered studios and hands. Everything was romantic.

I can still do it. I still do it. But the trick, or the blessing, is to see that romance, in the actual – the everything around you. And I do see it now. Oh, it can get lost, so easily – caught up in the ordinary, or the overwhelming events of life. But then I stop. Breathe. Gather all the romance around me until my chubby, youthful arms are full! Because I AM in love with my bathroom. The candles I light every morning when I take a shower. I adore breakfast with my husband – talking and dabbing every speck of croissant off of the plate, as to not miss a single taste. I am love with the violets and reds and yellows of springtime in Provence. I melt when I hear the birds singing, because I know that I have the paint and the hands, and the time, to capture them on canvas. To carry them with me, like a favorite song. Everything is not too much.

Maybe one of the best gifts that Van Dyke Road gave me was space. It wasn’t crowded. No dream was too big. I filled my heart, my brain, our front lawn, the gravel road, with the romance of all things possible.

The sun is shining – rich with possibility. My heart’s porch is sending you an invitation to the day! Isn’t it romantic?!!!


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Swagger.

For a brief period he was the principal at Washington Elementary. Bob Jones. As solid a man as his name could convey. A bald head and a smile so big it seemed to lift his steps – giving life to the verb swagger. He was, as our first grade teacher taught us in spelling class when differentiating the words principle and principal, yes, he was indeed our “pal.”

We wanted him to like us. What a gift that is for a principal to have. It was my cousin Vicki who gave me my first opportunity to speak with him. I get goose bumps remembering. Vicki, several years my senior, asked me one weekend, “Do you think he remembers me?” Remembers you??? He’s a rock star, I thought. “Ask him,” she giggled in delight. One thing about Vicki, she was always giggling. A giggle that made things seem possible. And so I agreed to do it. I would ask him, during his Monday morning stroll through the school.

I barely slept Sunday night. I waited near the back doors that opened to the playground. His usual rounds took him there just a little after 8am. I wouldn’t hear him coming, I would just have to wait – one never hears swagger. And there he was. White belt. White shoes. (I hope it was spring.) I stepped in his tracks. So nervous and excited, I blurted it out with no context. “Do you remember Vicki?” He stopped. He stopped for me! He bent down on one knee. “What’s this now?” he asked. “Vicki. My cousin. Vicki Hvezda. She wants to know if you remember her.” He smiled, even bigger than normal. “Aaah, yes, one of the Hvezda girls.” I beamed and ran to my class, as if she would be waiting there for the answer. I carried that answer with me for the rest of the week. I couldn’t wait to tell her. He remembered her. He stopped for me.

I’m giggling, even today. He left soon after and rose through the ranks of the school system. But for a moment, he was ours – our Bob Jones – and he saw us.

I guess we all want to seen.

It may seem crazy, but it was this simple pear – this tiny, still life – that reminded me of this story. But how beautiful, I think. How fitting. It all matters. The tiniest of moments that lift our faces, and fill our hearts’ pockets. I carry it all with me. Life’s swagger.